Debate has been raging this week over an SNP motion proposing compulsory all-women shortlists, to address the gender imbalance in the Scottish Parliament. Here, Gillian Wales of Strathaven Women for Independence sets out why she believes that, while not perfect, all-women's shortlists are necessary in both Scottish and UK-wide politics.
Like many other people, I felt encouraged by Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for all women shortlists. Finally, progressive action was being taken to deal with the gaping chasm between men and women in politics. However, not everyone is in agreement with this approach. Avondale SNP, which covers Strathaven and the surrounding area, has tabled an amendment that calls for a deletion of the plan, in its entirety. Their secretary, Pat McGuire, stated that roles should go to the “best person, regardless of gender”. To live in a world where that happened, eh?
Of course, all women shortlists should not be necessary and there is a genuine concern that they could be patronizing to women. However, if gender balance in politics was going to occur in an organic manner, wouldn’t it have happened by now?
Mr. McGuire claimed that that women, “…for whatever reason – have not put themselves forward for these positions.” Perhaps to some extent this is true. However, the key words here are ‘for whatever reason’.
The only way meritocracy will ever work for women is if numerous other barriers are eroded. These include the gender imbalance regarding caring duties and other forms of unpaid labour. Women account for 48 per cent of the Scottish labour force (ONS, 2014). However, 42 per cent of those women employed work part-time, in comparison with 13 per cent of men. Familial and domestic pressures often lead them into part-time work and women frequently experience a reduced status at work after they have taken time off to have a family. Women disproportionately bear the burden of unpaid labour and frequently return home for what Hochschild (1989) termed ‘the second shift’.
Additionally, there are cultural aspects to consider. Lesley Riddoch commented earlier this week on her own experience of a recent public meeting in Strathaven. So dominant were the male voices in the room that she had to request questions specifically from women. When they did ask, the quality of the questions was, of course, extremely high.
One of the main arguments against all women shortlists is the concern that they will ride roughshod over the democratic process of meritocracy. That argument is dubious in itself; something is clearly going wrong when women make up over half of the population and less than a quarter of MP’s. But meritocracy – if our society is meritocratic– simply isn’t the way to transcend economic and social inequalities. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with the gap between rich and poor increasing year on year. Even in its most basic sense, meritocracy isn’t working; if it were, then middle aged, rich white men would not dominate the political system.
Women continue to be grossly underrepresented in public and political life, both in Scotland and across the UK. Women account for only 22 per cent of MP’s, 35 per cent of MSP’s, less than one quarter of Scottish local councilors, 26 per cent of both judges and Scottish university principals and 28 per cent of NHS chief executives. Not recognising the structural reasons why women aren’t represented properly means that we are expected to believe that women either don’t want these roles or that they are aren’t capable of achieving them. I do not believe either is true and the wealth of talent, skill and drive I witnessed during the referendum tells me nothing is further from the truth.
The post referendum phrase ‘not going back in my box’ may be overused, but it could not be more relevant than for women. With all women shortlists, Nicola Sturgeon has demonstrated her desire to facilitate real change, giving women the opportunity to catapult themselves into positions of influence and inspire future generations of other women. There are several reasons why women do not, or rather cannot, put themselves forward for roles and these can no longer be ignored. We must find conclusive ways to overcome these restrictions and support women to realize their true and deserved potential. If this means all women shortlists for a time, then so be it.